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“Illness in Literature: “”Nightmare Begins Responsibility”” and “”The Metamorphosis”””

The Importance of Literature

For every reader, literature opens up the marvelous world of human relationships and experiences. Different epochs and cultures would describe the term literature differently. In its simplest definition, literature refers to a set of written and printed works of a certain people and period. At the same time, according to Damrosch, it “has expanded even beyond its root sense of works “written with letters,” to include oral compositions by illiterate poets and storytellers” (9). Hence, literature can be defined as a special kind of art that reflects on the essence of all epochs, discusses moral values, and raises people’s cultural level.

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Literature has particular importance for humankind since it gives people a more conscious understanding of human nature. The reflection and accumulation of a certain nation’s knowledge and culture contribute to the world’s heritage. Books are designed to be a source of wisdom, a guide to human life, and literary works carefully preserve the knowledge of each generation. Besides, not only readers benefit from literature, but also writers. For authors, it is a way to express themselves, share insights, and live out their characters’ lives. In doing so, they create a new artistic reality, conveying their emotions, ideas, and experiences. The importance of literature is undoubtful since it has become an integral part of human life.

In this regard, it is essential to draw connections between literature and life. The relationship is direct, as literature reflects reality in artistic images. Life and literary works influence each other and are closely interwoven. That is why significant events of personal and global importance find their reflection on the pages of a book. All human pains, worries, happiness, and suffering are put into words. In turn, life is inspired and encouraged by books since they can be powerful enough to change the way people perceive reality.

Illness as an Aspect of Life

Diseases, both real and fictional, play a significant role in fiction since illness is considered an integral aspect of life. Diseases appear in many books and sometimes become the central theme of a piece of writing. People are vulnerable and flawed by nature, and despite the significant progress in medicine and health care, there are still numerous issues that can dramatically change a person’s life. Some diseases are caused by risk factors and can be avoided. For instance, physical exercises, a healthy diet, and a balanced lifestyle can help prevent heart issues, diabetes, or obesity. At the same time, cancer can attack anyone when the person is expecting it the least. Moreover, mental disorders are common, and many people are put at risk due to genetic predisposition, stress, traumas, and other medical conditions. Another factor that makes people more vulnerable to illnesses is the aging process. Overall, diseases are experienced by everyone throughout their life, to a bigger or smaller extent.

Given the nature of illness as a concept, it is an important theme to the overall human experience. Diseases can cause physical and mental suffering, change habits and the familiar environment, and influence a person’s whole life and lifespan. In this regard, sharing feelings through written words can bring relief and show people that they are not alone. As O’Rourke states, sick people are often exposed to uncertainty, which worsens their overall condition. The theme of illness is important because no one is immune to all the diseases that exist in the world. As a result, any person is exposed to the threats, and the more information there is to learn about them, the less uncertain and lost people feel. That is why literature is so influential when it reflects on important themes. It can be depressing and dark, but also empowering and hopeful.

For this essay, I have chosen two works of art that touch upon the issue of illness. One is Michael S. Harper’s poem “Nightmare Begins Responsibility,” and the other is a short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. In the literary work by Harper, published in 1975, the central theme is the medical staff’s fight for a newborn baby’s life and his father’s mental pain (qtd. in Gardner et al. 1946). In Kafka’s short story, published in 1915, the plot revolves around a man transformed into a gigantic insect and his physical and mental sufferings (qtd. in Gardner et al. 1956). Even though the works by Harper and Kafka picture different circumstances and conditions of illness, both pieces of writing result from authors’ personal experience and contribute to the representation of disease in the literature.

Nightmare Begins Responsibility” by Michael S. Harper

In this short, intense poem, Harper raises the issues of hospitalization, dying, grief, parenthood, and racism. The writing pictures a scene in an intensive care unit, watched by a father who has his newborn son at the mercy of medical workers. The reader can trace the man’s hectic thoughts and feelings as he watches doctors trying to save his child’s life. The glass pane serves as a symbol of the father’s helplessness and anguish (Harper 76). Another metaphor, a “tube-kept/ prison,” emphasizes how inevitable the nearing death seems and how little control is in the father’s hands (Harper 76). The overall atmosphere of the poem revolves around desperation, disease, and fear.

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All the drama takes place not only at the hospital but also in the man’s mind as a strong feeling of distrust influences his perspective. Harper repeats this word to emphasize the primary emotion the man is experiencing. He fears that the medical personnel will not do their best to save his son because they are white when the father and son are black. The conflicting feelings constitute the work’s primary focus and are emphasized by the use of metaphors such as “distrusting-white-hands-picking-baboon-light” and “hymns of night-train, train done gone” (Harper 76). Besides, the hectic rhythm of the father’s thoughts is emphasized by words written together: “mamaborn, sweetsonchild” and “white-doctor-who-breathed-for-him-all-night” (Harper 76). The complexity of issues touched upon in this poem goes beyond the theme of illness, highlighting how serious the causes and effects of a disease can be.

The poem by Harper is important as it complicates the issue of illness and intertwines it with the problems of racism, parenthood struggles, and father-and-son relationships. The distrust for medical personnel, racial inequality, family member loss are touched upon in this piece of writing. The father becomes acutely aware of all these issues once his newborn baby’s health and life are at stake. On top of that, the literary work by Harper brings up the father’s perspective on the newborn’s critical state, when literature tends to focus on the feelings and suffering of a mother losing her child. The work sheds light on the new painful responsibilities that a person acquires when experiencing a loss due to health issues.

The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

“The Metamorphosis” is one of the best-known literary works by Kafka. The protagonist of the short story, Gregor Samsa, wakes up once to discover himself turned into a gigantic vile insect (Kafka 1). Even though the author does not reveal the cause for such a metamorphosis, in a typical for Kafka manner, the reader can assume the possible factors. For instance, Samsa is pictured as a simple salesman burdened by the responsibility to care for his family and earn his living by a mundane work. A person, lonely and stressed by such a meaningless desperate fate, seems to have found an escape and unwillingly distanced himself from the responsibilities and his whole family. Unfortunately, this outcome seems only to complicate Samsa’s life. After his father causes him damage with throwing an apple at the insect, mental pain and guilt are worsened by physical suffering (Kafka 19). Eventually, Samsa cannot bear the fate so overwhelming, and he dies, left entirely without the support of his family.

Kafka complements the fantastic, grotesque masterpiece, and the repulsive insect serves as a metaphor for a person who has a mental disease. This fact is not stated directly, but small details prove this theory right. Kafka portrays a person who suffers emotionally and whose feeling of guilt and misery, reinforced by his family members, eventually leads him to death (McElprang). In this short story, the author emphasizes that mental illness is not the fault of a person who has it, and they should not be treated as a burden.

“The Metamorphosis” is important because it draws attention to the issue of mental disorders and the consequences of living with a person with special needs. In the end, Samsa’s family gives up on him, overwhelmed with shame, fear, and discomfort. The literary work goes beyond the theme of physical illness and focuses on a mental disorder. In the modern world, this theme seems especially acute as many people are exposed to the risks of mental issues, due to long-term stress, traumatic events of different nature, and loneliness. Therefore, the work by Kafka raises awareness of the problem in an artistic manner.

Connections and Conclusion

Overall, the theme of illness is broadly presented in the literature by many authors. “Nightmare Begins Responsibility” by Michael S. Harper and “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka are the two examples of literary works that focus on illness and disease. The poem by Harper reflects on dying, human vulnerability, and helplessness as it pictures the scene of a newborn baby who the doctors do not manage to save. In turn, Kafka’s short story emphasizes the challenges of living with a mental disease as he portrays the miserable and unbearable life of Samsa after his metamorphosis. The medical conditions in the works are different, but both contribute to the representation of illness in the literature.

To sum up, the overall connection between literature and life is inevitable as both influence each other, with life issues being the foundation for literary works and literature being the embodiment of human concerns. The two works of art that add to the discourse on the subject of illness prove this hypothesis. As one can see, both pieces of writing can teach people how important it is to show support to those suffering and remain humane and compassionate. The theme of illness is important as it is a part of human life. Literary works that discuss the issue contribute to people’s awareness and share experiences that can help others deal with their concerns. They enrich the human condition as they touch upon situations that can happen to anyone; hence, people can learn how to deal with them. Overall, literature conveys the power of knowledge and shares a variety of human experiences.

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Works Cited

Damrosch, David. How to Read World Literature. 2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

Gardner, Janet E., et al. Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.

Harper, Michael S. Nightmare Begins Responsibility. Vol. 226, U of Illinois P 1974.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Modern Library Classics, 2013.

McElprang, Pam. “Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: Gregor’s Mental Illness and the Impact of His Depression.” Owlcation. 2018, Web.

O’Rourke, Meghan. “Why Does Literature Have So Little to Say About Illness?” Literary Hub. 2017, Web.

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